Wellington Scoop

A second vote for strengthening the Town Hall – so when does the work start?

by Lindsay Shelton
There’ll be general approval that the city council has voted, again, to strengthen the Wellington Town Hall. But some of the details remain vague. And you have to wonder why the council needed to have a second vote for something they’d agreed to do two years ago.

Councillors first voted in June 2013 to strengthen the Town Hall. The cost was stated as $43million. The mayor stated the case persuasively and correctly:

“The Town Hall is a historic landmark building. The money we will spend will future-proof the building for the next century. Music performance and recordings will benefit hugely.

“Today we showed leadership for Wellington’s heritage and public safety. We have excellent economic opportunities to lead earthquake engineering, community resilience and architectural services globally. This is a critical commitment to a strong future for Wellington. We cannot expect private owners to upgrade and strengthen their heritage buildings if we don’t show this commitment.”

She was supported, equally persuasively, by Cr Pannett.

The proposed strengthening option – base-isolation – would take the Town Hall to 140% of the New Build Standard. “It is a cheaper and less destructive and disruptive solution than other strengthening options – like steel framing – and it would keep the building largely intact in a sizeable quake when other solutions would mean that while the occupants would probably escape unscathed, the building would probably be badly damaged to the point it might have to be demolished. The Wellington Town Hall is part of our sense of place, we’re not prepared to let such an important piece of our heritage be reduced to rubble.”

All councillors agreed. The Town Hall was closed, so that work could begin. But when tenders were received, the cost had gone up to $60million. So the work that councillors had voted for did not start.

In December last year, the decision to strengthen the Town Hall was announced again. This time it was linked to a plan to raise extra money by leasing council land, as well as to the concept of a new music hub which the council promised will “breathe new life” into Civic Square. The council said it was planning a partnership with Victoria University of Wellington and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

The music hub plan was welcomed by the NZSO, whose chief executive Christopher Blake said:

“The NZSO envisages a transformation of the Wellington Town Hall into a major and nationally significant centre of excellence and innovation for education, music, culture and the arts with its world class auditorium at its heart. The Wellington City Council’s Civic Precinct Master Plan would ensure the internationally acclaimed acoustics of the Town Hall auditorium are put to their best use….Under the proposed collaboration … it would be a vibrant home for the NZSO and a centre for performance, teaching, research and composition as well as music technology, recording and innovation. We believe this national centre for music would significantly advance progress towards Wellington City Council’s vision Wellington Towards 2040: Smart Capital in a unique and tangible way.”

There was talk of a feasibility study “before progressing the proposal further.” To give reality to the decision announced yesterday, the council needs to tell us how that study is progressing. What were the results of the study? Were they positive? Have negotiations started? The council needs to say more than it is “pursuing a proposal.” (Which was all it had to say in yesterday’s announcement.)

The council also needs to tell us whether the strengthening is dependent on signing money-making deals for new buildings on Jack Ilott Green and part of the Michael Fowler carpark. These plans were also included in December’s announcement, which said the cost

… would be offset by the proceeds from proposed ground-leases and development of part of the Michael Fowler Centre car park, the Council’s existing Municipal Office Building (MOB) and the Jack Ilott site (on the corner of Jervois Quay and Harris Street)…The successful signing of ground leases or other financial arrangements relating to the three sites around the Precinct could raise up to $25 million and significantly contribute to the funding of the necessary strengthening of the Town Hall and the other public buildings.

“Up to $25million” seems to be more than enough to cover the cost increase that stopped work beginning two years ago. But now is the time for the council to live up to its claim (from last December) that “over the years a number of developers have made offers and expressed interest in a range of proposals and uses for the buildings and sites around Civic Square.”

A new building on Jack Ilott Green might have been expected to cause public opposition, specially from those who remember that for years this public land was earmarked for a new music school, for which money was never found. But the mayor told us yesterday that the overall plan to “revamp Civic Square” has 78% support, and so we must presume that this includes sacrificing the green to help cover the costs of the revamp.

There’s one reason for asking these questions. When will work start on strengthening the city’s beautiful 114-year-old Town Hall? Former mayor Kerry Prendergast has described how the continuing closure is a serious problem for the arts festival, which she chairs. And Helene Ritchie says the building could be closed for at least eight years. It’s time for councillors to deal with both these issues. They’ve twice voted for strengthening. Now they must ensure that the Town Hall is not closed for eight years and is made available again for the arts festival and for all the other events – cultural and otherwise – for which it attracts large audiences of citizens and visitors. Even another two years would be too long for the Town Hall to be left locked up and empty.

Peter Jackson: a world-class auditorium with exceptional acoustics